An Exploration of Sacred Parenting and Education

Discussion on Doubt, Faith and Certainty

In Qur'an, Spirit, heart & soul on July 13, 2013 at 9:10 am

Questions from Lesley Hazleton TED Talk

  1. Is certainty always rooted in arrogance? It’s interesting to see how certainty is connected to knowledge and our sense of self.
  2. Why aren’t any Muslim scholars on TED talking about these issues?

Charles Upton: Interestingly enough, I heard Seyyed Hossein Nasr address the issue of certainty during the short panel discussion after his talk to the Festival of the Faiths last month in Louisville, Kentucky (linked below. Q&A @ 1:55). His fellow panelist identified certainty with religious fanaticism. Dr. Nasr vociferously disagreed, declaring that man is made for certainty. To say that certainty can only be based on arrogance or ideological indoctrination is to say that the human soul can never encounter Allah, which is one short step from outright atheism. 

Frithjof Schuon emphasized that man  is made to know the Truth because he is host to the Intellect, and the Intellect is of one substance with what it knows. Arrogance hides doubt under a show of false certainty, but the one with true certainty is humble enough, and submissive enough to Allah as al-Haqq, the Truth, to let go of the idols of the ego, all its fixed ideas, and know only what the Truth reveals to him, and BE only what that Truth knows him to be. Arrogance is all subjectivity; it’s based on the premise that the Truth is only what WE say it is because a given view of things is to our advantage and we believe we have the power to enforce that view. Arrogance is totally lacking in objectivity; we know this from our own experience. An arrogant person doesn’t care who you really are, but tries to DICTATE who you are as if he or she were Allah, and then relate to this imagined being while treating you as if you did not exist. Any scientist or historian knows that real knowledge requires humility, that if the results of their objective research happen to contradict their most cherished notions, those notions must be sacrificed; if they refuse to make this sacrifice they are traitors to their professions. William Blake defined doubt as “self-contradiction” and said that “If the Sun and Moon would Doubt, they’d immediately go out.” Those among the “intellectual elites” — toadies of the global political and financial elites – who define certainty as arrogance are simply trying to convince us that nothing can really be known because they want to destroy the ability of critical thinking in us, for the purpose of filling our minds with their own ideologies and agendas. If, as Charles Peguy once said, “everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics”, then every metaphysical error must ultimately result in political chaos and tyranny.

Jeremy HT: One must distinguish between false certainties rooted in inherited beliefs and dogmas (the Qur’an tells us not to blindly imitate the ‘forefathers of old’)  and the spiritual certitude (yaqin) which, as Al-Ghazali says, arises from ‘tasting’ (dhawq), that is, spiritual savouring, where ‘savouring’ has the same root as’ sapience’, wisdom. As so often, it is a question of terminology – what kind of certainty is being talked about? Yes, there is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty  Principle in Quantum Mechanics which leads us to question the certainties posited in the old mechanistic paradigm – but it all boils down to ‘levels of description’.

I notice that Hazleton has said (in a different context) that ‘everything is paradox; the danger is one-dimensional thinking’ and there is much to commend this view, but there is also a danger, and that is the propensity of the critical mind to always look for what is dissonant or contradictory. Paradox, yes, but Divine Paradox, not the uncertainty created by intellectual ‘contradictions’ or labyrinthine philosophizing.  And yes, it’s important to move in the direction of ‘multi-dimensional thinking’ and thus avoid blind imitation (taqlid) and other manifestations of a monolithic mentality, but the source of the Qur’an is neither one-dimensional nor multi-dimensional but is a dimensionless point, beyond any dimension, a taste of which came to Ibn ‘Arabi when he entered the station of the Abode of Light in Fez in the year 593 AH  during the ‘asr prayer at the Al-Azhar Mosque in ‘Ayn al-Khail. Reporting this experience, he said:  “When I saw this light the status of the direction ‘behind’ ceased for me. I no longer had a back or nape of the neck, and while the vision lasted I could no longer distinguish between different sides of myself. I was like a sphere,  no longer aware of myself as having any ‘side’ except the result of a mental process – not an experienced reality.”

So I think our aim as spiritual seekers and followers of the Qur’an is not to assume that even the most ‘nuanced thinking’ of those trying to go beyond ‘one-dimensional’ thinking is necessarily even a very advanced station. It is a tool, to be sure, of a certain level of description, but it is largely still the result of a mental process – not an experienced reality. What came to the Prophet in the Cave was an experienced reality so powerful that he could hardly bear it, but it did not bring him uncertainty. On the contrary it brought him yaqin, spiritual certitude, a state beyond the grasp of the rational mind, and perceivable only with the knowing and seeing heart.

So my reaction to this talk is how wonderful it is to see such an open-minded approach which cuts across so many false notions about the Prophet and the Qur’an but at the same time, I’d say we have to keep traveling  from station to station and not get stuck in a siding which overvalues mental processes, no matter how nuanced, at the expense of the experienced reality (dhawq) which brings us spiritual certitude (yaqin).

CU: I couldn’t agree more with Jeremy’s response. Certainty is the presence of Truth and the Truth is One; if certainty is defined as a mental or spiritual or cultural limitation, the implication is that Truth can never be encountered. When faith is lost, doubt and sophistication take its place.

We know spiritual Truth with the Intellect, the Eye of the Heart, not with the will. The will must submit to Allah for the Eye of the Heart to open, but once it does, It is the viceroy of Allah, and the will His servant.

But those who have not reached spiritual certainty, and whose culture no longer transmits to them the messages emanating from that certainty through traditional art and ambiance and all the forms of daily life, not to mention the presence of those who possess yaqin and a social matrix which allows them to be believed in and venerated and resorted to when difficulties arise, will often try to assert the yaqin they do not actually possess on the basis of will alone. They try to believe, they will to believe, they will believe – and everyone else, by God, will believe what they believe, or else. Here is where a certain amount of “nuanced thinking” can be of help. The Qur’an, at every point, points to the One, but it does so from innumerable points of the compass; in this it mirrors Allah’s action upon us, as expressed in the hadith “Allah holds the Heart between His two fingers, and turns it however He will.”; in the words of the Qur’an itself [55:29], Every day doth some new work employ Him. And it takes a certain amount of subtlety, or nuanced thinking, to accept this even on the mental level; the hope is that this subtlety of thought might give way to subtlety of experience, of direct taste. But mental subtlety feeding upon itself is a heavy veil – a particularly postmodern one. There is a Sufi story about a class of school children who were being taught how to write the letters of the alphabet by their teacher. Most of the pupils were progressing well, but there was one slow student who couldn’t seem to get beyond the letter Alif. The other children went on to other numbers, but the slow child felt that he had not yet fully mastered the Alif, so the teacher finally despaired of teaching him anything further and concentrated his efforts on the others. Years later, after the children were grown, the aged teacher ran into a young man who introduced himself as the slow student he had taught so many years ago. “My old teacher!” he said, “how have you been? Since I last saw you I’ve been practicing my Alif; I think I’ve finally got the hang of it. Here, let me show you.” The young man walked up to a wall and, using his finger like a pen, drew an Alif upon it—and the wall split in two.

Saqib:  Thank you for sharing such beautiful insights. Jeremy, I know this taste you mentioned. I  had a dream when I was 16 and experienced a different dimension of time. When I awoke I carried a certainty of the day’s events which were to follow. The certainty was very strong, on an intuitive level and more powerful than any belief, yet I couldn’t ratonalise or explain it. I just knew. It felt like knowledge and certainty (ilm’ al yaqeen) were one and the same. Maybe it arose from having witnessed (ain al yaqeen). I’m not sure what  purpose this experience served, but it made my study of science and maths somewhat unfulfilling.

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